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A Post-Secular Faith? Connolly on Pluralism and Evil
James Martin
Author Biog:
James Martin is Reader in Political Theory at Goldsmiths, University of London, UK.
He has published research on Continental, particularly Italian, political theory and on
the political dimensions of contemporary poststructuralism. He is author, most
recently, of Piero Gobetti and the Politics of Liberal Revolution (2008), co-author of
Third Way Discourse (2003), editor of The Poulantzas Reader (2008) and co-editor of
Continental Political Thought (2006).
In his 2002 State of the Union Address, US President George W. Bush warned his
audience of an ‘axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world’. It is tempting
to roll one’s eyes in contemptuous disbelief at this now familiar refrain. Yet, however
we may react to Bush’s terminology, it is certain that we cannot help but react. That
phrase, of course, was calculated precisely to have an immediate, practical effect by
dividing the world and forcing us to take sides. For few notions have the visceral,
rhetorical power of the term ‘evil’. Even when we oppose its use, we often react with
the very gut-instinct such notions are designed to activate. Whilst, on occasion,
philosophers accuse each other of ‘category errors’, perhaps even of some disgraceful
‘performative contradiction’, these complaints barely come close to the sheer
normative force of vocabularies that invoke religious terms.
It might be assumed, then, that a serious, emancipatory politics cannot deal in such
charged concepts without collapsing into a potentially barbarous mysticism. Surely
the language of evil lends itself too easily to the apocalyptic visions of reactionary
conservativism to be of value for those with progressive goals? Yet William E.
Connolly is one of a number of contemporary political philosophers who has looked
to the vocabulary of religion and, indeed, to the term evil in order to explore the
possibilities for a radical, democratic politics. How he does this and how we might
respond to the challenge to think pluralism in relation to evil are the focus of this
The Post-Secular Turn
If national and international politics has long been witness to the deployment of a
none-too-subtle religious language, in recent years this language has also come to
preoccupy political philosophy. Ideas about evil, but also other elements of a religious
style of discourse, including the very notion of religion itself, have come into focus in
broadly ‘post-modern’ philosophical enquiries (see, for example, Badiou, 2001 and
2003; Derrida, 2001; Eagleton, 2005; Vattimo and Rorty, 2005). Common to many of
these enquiries is a deliberate renunciation of ‘secularist’ rationalism and an effort to
engage an array of ideas and experiences that, once, might have been dismissed by a
section of the progressive Left as being of an unacceptably religious nature. Of
course, aspects of religious discourse have always been present in philosophy—in the
sense that modern philosophy ‘took over’ or ‘re-occupied’ the fundamental themes
that theology once arrogated to itself—but political philosophers have long been wary
of thinking their concepts primarily in the terms of religion, for fear of giving ground
to what Hegel called a ‘rapturous haziness’ that offers ‘edification rather than insight’
(Hegel, 1977: 6, 5). If modern philosophy inherits questions of the soul, salvation,
charity or justice, it has largely modified these terms by translating them into a secular
However, in the work of recent thinkers such as, for example, Derrida, Laclau or
Badiou, we witness a returning interest in the structure of religious discourse, be it
through notions of the ‘Messianic’ or the universalism of St Paul. In renouncing a
purely secular language that renders all experiences transparent to rational discourse,
vocabularies attuned to a religious register come close to grasping the sometimes
ineffable and often abundant excesses of meaning in social and political contest.
Religious texts and religious thought often invite us to reason from an aporetic sense
of being—a fundamental dislocation of selfhood—as the premise to a deeply ethical
engagement with the world. Contemporary philosophers, increasingly released from
the secular-rational straight-jacket, have found this combined ethical and ontological
language to be a bountiful resource. Without in any way endorsing religious worship,
nevertheless the practical, performative character of the language of the religious—its
direct appeal to a sense of self-hood and its paradoxical insertion in the world—has
caught the imagination of philosophers (see Caputo, 2001). As we shall see, Connolly
shares in this ‘post-secular’ trend in his effort to reconstruct a radical pluralism by
reference to a concept of evil.
But the notion of evil also has a particular resonance outside of philosophical enquiry.
Evil is a powerful evaluative term in popular discourse as we continue to witness
experiences of terrorism, genocide, civil conflict and plenty other acts of daily but
almost incomprehensible barbarity (see Cole, 2006). As a term that designates the
utterly malicious, sometimes barely comprehensible qualities or motivations of certain
acts, accusations of evil usually encompass both a profound moral response and
themselves invoke a desired moral order as a way of framing and making sense of
actions that transgress the limits of our moral intuitions. For this reason, too, it is also
a deeply problematic notion. It may help us look across our moral horizons but in so
doing it permits us crudely to reinforce them, assigning responsibilities and
suggesting punishments for moral transgressions that, on reflection, may seem just as
bad as the ‘crimes’ they claim to redress. In setting a moral frontier, popular
discourses of evil may allow us to name the unnameable, yet they often do so by
radically narrowing ethical engagement. The ‘problem’ of evil, at least from the
perspective of post-secularism, concerns how we remain critically attuned to our
evaluative intuitions whilst at the same time avoiding the importation of crude,
exclusionary logics that a highly-charged language often entails.
Below I want to explore some elements of this problem in relation to Connolly’s
work. For Connolly occupies a distinctive position in contemporary political
philosophy, somewhere between the two poles noted above. That is, as he has himself
declared, he stands as an exemplary post-secularist, one seeking positively to engage
the dynamic technologies of the self offered up in religious discourse (see Connolly,
1999) whilst, simultaneously, refusing the moral conservatism and metaphysical
rigidity common to religion in favour of a radical pluralism (see Connolly, 2005a).
Yet, as we shall see, although Connolly wholeheartedly rejects a metaphysical notion
of evil, the term returns in his own reaction to the September 11 attacks in the US. A
‘non-theological’ concept of evil then comes to stand as an important plank in his
defence of pluralism. As I shall argue below, this version of evil appears to describe a
destructive nihilism, conceived as the visceral annihilation, or closure, of a
meaningful world. In turn, this usage raises the question of whether, in defence of a
robust pluralism, it is necessary to figure evil in a stronger narrative than Connolly is
prepared to admit.
Pluralism Beyond Secularism
As is well-known, Connolly’s contribution to political philosophy is propelled by a
radical orientation towards pluralism, one that extends beyond the established liberal
pluralism of post-war political science to endorse a variety of social differences from
race and ethnicity to gender and sexuality. In Why I am Not a Secularist (1999)
Connolly underscores the post-secular reasoning that informs his radical pluralism.
Secularism, he argues, has tended to narrow down the horizons of democratic thought,
constraining it within a liberal mindset that, he feels, is ‘insufficiently alert to the
layered density of political thinking and judgment’ (Connolly, 1999: 4). Whilst
secular liberalism has doubtless advanced the cause of democracy, not least in its
separation of Church and state, its tendency to an arid rationalism and, often, to a
dogmatic insistence on a single form of ‘public reason’ nevertheless fails to engage
the rich and contrasting multiplicity of experiences, libidinal investments and beliefs
at work in a democratic order.
Connolly’s ‘post-modern’ pluralism, by contrast, seeks to open up to a greater range
of social and cultural experiences of difference by refashioning secularism around
what he has called a ‘politics of becoming’, that is, an anti-essentialist
conceptualisation of social identities, differences and their mutual relations (see
Connolly, 2002a). Whilst retaining secularism’s distrust of dogmatic religiosity,
Connolly promotes an ‘ethos of engagement’ among secular and religious traditions
in order that new connections as well as contrasting differences can be positively
explored. An ethos of engagement is imagined to open up possibilities in which
different ‘faiths’ (theist and atheist), as he calls them, may enter into contest and
modify their mutual hostility, with the potential to cultivate a wider landscape of
democratic interaction.
‘Forbearance and modesty’ claims Connolly ‘are presumptive virtues in pluralist
politics’ (1999: 9). Greater engagement among contrasting faiths, conducted in an
atmosphere of ‘generosity’ towards the differences of the other, can escape secular
liberalism’s hard-line refusal to engage ‘the visceral register of subjectivity and
intersubjectivity’ without simultaneously submitting to a single conception of the
Good. Although he does not imagine pluralism to bring a glorious peace and harmony
to diverse and antagonistic democratic cultures, Connolly dares to argue for a public
life where contrasting metaphysical conceptions have not been ‘strained out’ or
privatised but brought into a more productive proximity. The best that can be hoped
for here is perhaps an ‘agonistic’ respect rather than a new consensus.
Connolly’s efforts to address the layered, ‘visceral register of being’ as a mark of the
depth and intensity of social identity is central to his argument for pluralism. For here
plurality is itself a condition of the self, as much as of society, and Connolly’s aim in
delineating an ethos of engagement is to permit the otherness within individual selves
to flow more freely than at present in a wider world of other selves. Plurality is both
‘within’ and ‘without’, we might say. Connolly’s proposed ethos is not therefore a
rational consensus to be achieved by universal reason among self-contained, singular
selves, nor even a unifying cultural tradition, so much as an invitation to explore the
otherness within, to soften—without altogether abandoning—the structures of
personal identity.
In this endeavour, Connolly takes up a distinctively Nietzschean orientation to
morality. Moral values are treated not as eternal principles so much as metaphysical
tools to order the layers of desire across the fabric of the self. The task is not to
relinquish these in favour of some ‘post-metaphysical’ order of procedural values but
to return ourselves to the work they do on the ‘inside’ as well as the ‘outside’. It is no
surprise, then, to find Connolly inviting us to consider cultivating the ‘arts of the self’,
that is, to undertake a ‘selective desanctification’ of elements of our individual
identity, weakening its hierarchies and exploring its intensities such that its
differences no longer coalesce around a dogmatic vision of wholeness and unity (see
Connolly, 1999: 143-52).
Although brief, this summary of Connolly’s post-secular approach to pluralism serves
to illuminate some of the character of his political ethics, in particular the
Nietzschean/Foucauldian presentation of how moral values work upon the self. It was
in this vein, too, that Connolly undertook his earlier examination in The Augustinian
Imperative (2002b, first published in 1993) of the kind of moral authoritarianism he
hoped (and continues) to challenge with his pluralist ethos of engagement. It is here,
too, that we first come across the problem of evil in his work.
Connolly on Augustine
The ‘Augustinian Imperative’, as Connolly sees it, involves the designation of an
authoritative and objective moral order towards which we are encouraged, as a matter
of urgency, to adapt ourselves ‘from within’. In his book, Connolly explores the
structure of this argument by traversing Saint Augustine’s texts concerning his own
(that is, Augustine’s) conversion to Christianity and his admonishment of pagan
practices. Whilst Connolly follows the logic of Augustine’s Christian message, he is
not interested in the nuances of theology so much as the exemplary nature of
Augustine’s moral discourse. The faith to which Augustine converts and upon which
he becomes an authority can be seen to exemplify the structure of moral discourse
more generally, whether it be religiously-inspired morality or a secular version of the
Moral Law. The Augustinian imperative is the imperative of all moralities: if you fear
the loss of yourself in eternal damnation then reach out for salvation by purifying your
soul of evil through acceptance of the Divine command. Moral order will then be
Bound up with the imperative to align oneself with the moral order, as Connolly
views it, is a politics of difference and identity in which the self is constituted
through moralizing practices that shape and discipline, hollow out and repress various
elements of subjectivity. The transcendental source of commands that calculate
punishment and rewards in this scenario is all the more powerful for its presumed
neutrality and its inscrutability. Subjects of Christian conversion act upon themselves
with strategies of power designed to smooth out moral unevenness, internal
dissonances, contradictions and fugitive experiences that pervert and transgress a
Divinely-instituted harmony they are forbidden to question.
But, of course, there is a deception at work here. Connolly examines Augustine’s
comments on confession as a practice in which a divided will, in need of unification
with a ‘higher’ transcendental guide, invokes the very order that purportedly
‘completes’ it. Echoing Foucault’s remarks on confession as a power relationship
operative via a procedure of ‘unburdening’, an interiorised self-disclosure aimed at
normalizing Truth (see Foucault, 1978: 60-63), Connolly suggests that the very act of
confession creates the divided identity that confession is designed to restore. The
obsessive attention to admitting and expunging one’s personal misdemeanours and
desires is itself a process of fabricating a higher, purer self against which, inevitably,
we are diminished. Likewise, Augustine’s message is sustained through the
vilification of certain practices as well as other doctrines that present religion, and
particularly, Christianity differently, that is, in ways that reduce the demand for
salvation by an omnipotent God.
Whilst the question of evil is not the sole focus of Connolly’s enquiries, nevertheless,
the nature of evil for Augustine occupies much of the text. Evil denotes the
transgression of the moral order, whether conceived as a Divine command or the
natural harmony of the Cosmos created by God. Rooted in the ‘original sin’ of Adam
and Eve, evil is not itself a quality of the Divine will but is the force that subverts that
will. It lies within the intrinsically divided soul of the individual subject who desires
to act with free will, that is, without the guidance of its higher source. Evil is therefore
a condition in which, like Adam and Eve, we are set loose from our essential
dependency on a higher will and act with what Augustine calls the ‘deformed liberty’
of subjects who presume the autonomy of God himself. ‘Evil’ therefore describes a
condition by which, in acting against the Divine command, we deprive ourselves of
our full identities as subjects of God.
This conception of evil as the transgression of an intrinsic moral order, as the selfdeprivation of a higher moral source with which, despite ourselves, we are
intrinsically bound up, has become a powerful counterpoint to modern liberal thought.
Arguably, it provides a more compelling response to the question of malice and
wickedness in human behaviour than did Kant, for example, in his Religion Within
the Boundaries of Mere Reason. For Kant (1998), ‘radical evil’ appears, ultimately, to
reduce to egoistic behaviour; a failure fully to attune oneself to the universality of a
rational maxim. For Kantian liberals, moral demands issue from an autonomous
rational subjectivity whose law must be self-given. But, as Simon Critchley argues,
this autonomous self is a precarious construction, premised on an asserted ‘fact of
reason’ that can only tell us what our duty is but cannot motivate us to pursue it
(Critchley, 2007: 26-37). In François Flahault’s terms, the problem of ‘malice’, as he
prefers to call it, is that it affects ‘subjects of existence’ and not ‘subjects of
knowledge’ (Flahault, 2003: 9). That is, evil (or malice) reaches into the structure of
our being and our answering it cannot merely be a matter of knowing ‘right’ from
‘wrong’. In Critchley’s terms, a compelling ethical demand is one that divides us to
the core, one that exceeds the fantasy of autonomous self-hood. The rational subjects
of the Enlightenment, who regarded themselves as essentially good, sought to master
themselves so as to escape the problems of existing raised in the idea of evil. By
contrast, the Augustinian subject is always-already a divided self with a precarious,
uncertain existence that cannot be mastered without Divine guidance.
The attraction of Augustine, to Connolly and to many others, then, lies precisely in
this acknowledgement of the problem of existence—a sense of existential unease or
division that persistently erupts within us as and which refuses the psychic selfsufficiency of Enlightenment rationality. As suggested earlier, it is precisely this
awareness of the aporetic nature of human existence which has attracted postsecularists to religious texts. These have been utilised to explore the contingency of
subjectivity and to develop critiques of liberal reason on that basis. Yet Augustine’s
response to this aporetic condition—the onto-theological strategy of Divine
salvation—is, of course, not attractive for those of a radical democratic persuasion.
Nor, according to Connolly, is it wholly convincing.
The question of how an omnipotent and omniscient entity can permit, or at least fail to
foresee, the transgression of His own will remains a glaring problem and Connolly
swiftly exposes this blind spot in Augustine’s vision of a Divinely-governed order.
Indeed, the reason Augustine is worthy of examination at all is because his effort to
construct a water-tight case for a moral order simply cannot fulfil its promise, and the
gaps in this case are opportunities for Connolly to explore moments in Augustine’s
texts where alternative readings may be possible.
Augustine’s imperative turns out to be a good foil for the kind of post-Nietzschean
‘generosity’ towards difference and otherness that the moralizing discourses of
‘modern Augustinians’—for instance, the religious Right in America who often dwell
upon the absolutes of culture and identity rather than theology—usually disavow
(Connolly, 2002b: 82). As we have noted above, the ‘critical pluralism’ to which
Connolly subscribes is a kind of inverse of the thirst for a Moral Law. It is the
‘inverse’ in the differential sense that moralizing discourses renounce the ‘ethical’
engagement with otherness that Connolly welcomes; but it also shares a similar
structure of sensibility concerning the inward cultivation of the self, one also present
in the work of Nietzsche and Foucault. Whilst both these thinkers set themselves the
task of thinking ethics outside the strictures of a universal morality, both,
nevertheless, understood the place of self-cultivation and an affirmative ‘faith’ in
overcoming limitations involved in any ethical discourse (2002b: 119-28, 146-51).
If, then, Connolly’s exploration of the Augustinian imperative is designed to critique
the tradition—be it secular or religious—of ‘smooth morality’ and its vilifying
hostility towards those who transgress the moral law, nevertheless it is true that he
also retains a sympathy for the language of religiosity or, better, the ethical
programme of facing up to the sources of diremption within us—or what Connolly
calls the ‘rift in being’—that Augustine powerfully explores. This characteristically
post-secular orientation has an important bearing on how he goes on to develop his
approach to pluralism.
Between Nihilism and Pluralism
If we fast forward twelve years from the original publication of The Augustinian
Imperative, however, we find Connolly turning directly to the theme of evil following
the terrorist atrocities in the US of 2001 (see Connolly, 2005b). This piece also
appeared, in revised form, as the opening chapter (titled ‘Pluralism and Evil’) to his
Pluralism (Connolly, 2005a). Connolly now revisits his thesis of an Augustine
imperative, this time in relation to Islamicist terrorism and the theological moralizing
that has accompanied it. In this text, explicitly devoted to the question of evil,
Connolly no longer treats evil merely as the attribution of responsibility for
transgressions against an authoritative moral order. Rather, evil is regarded as an everpresent temptation on the part of those who hold to any faith (secular or religious), a
temptation to ‘take revenge’ against the faith of others regarded as subversive or
inferior. Describing this as ‘the tendency to evil within faith’, Connolly now employs
the term not merely to describe the repertoire of fundamentalist discourse but also as a
legitimate descriptor in itself, openly accepting that the language of evil can be
deployed in such a way as ‘to retain the sense of suffering and despair attached to the
word, while pulling it away from necessary attachment’ to ideas of ‘a commanding
God, free will and primordial guilt’ (2005b: 138). That way, he hopes, it might be
possible to realign the term evil to the defence, rather than the subversion, of
pluralism, relocating it in an expanded, non-theological sense of faith and religiosity.
Once more, then, Connolly’s response to the Augustinian imperative is not the secular
reaction that denounces religious discourse as such but, rather, he undertakes to step
closer to the world of religious faith, to explore its internal structure and tensions. ‘To
be human’ he argues ‘is to be inhabited by existential faith’ (2005b: 139). All human
experience is relayed through explicit belief systems but also by visceral, embodied
investments that exceed the tight rationality of mere ‘belief’. Whether we are
explicitly religious or not, we are all prone to the disruptive effects such investments
produce when challenged or dislodged. To allay the temptation to undertake acts of
violent revenge (that is, to practice evil, to enact it upon others) Connolly advises a
‘hesitation’ within faith rather than a ‘universal’ morality over and above it. That is,
he invites a certain degree of reflectivity that does not undo the complex knots of faith
so much as loosens them sufficiently to negotiate a world filled with other kinds of
Whilst we may debate the terms of Connolly’s proposed resolution to inter-faith
conflicts and their place in sustaining pluralism, what is noticeable here is the
characterisation of evil that this text brings to his discussion. For evil is not now for
Connolly the transgression of a pre-defined, wholly incontestable moral order. Rather,
it designates what we might define as a destructive nihilism, that is, the enforced
withdrawal of its victims from an open horizon of being by the imposed negation of
difference. For instance, reflecting on the 9/11 attacks, Connolly paints a startling
picture of how the perpetration of evil undertakes a negation of one’s world:
Evil surprises; it liquidates sedimented habits of moral trust; it foments
categorical uncertainty; it issues in a fervent desire to restore closure to a
dirempted world; and it generates imperious demands to take revenge on the
guilty parties. When you experience evil, the bottom falls out of your stomach
because it has fallen out of your world (Connolly, 2005: 133).
Evil negates your world, it hollows out the guts of your being; it leaves you empty,
uncertain, and disoriented. This is no longer the theological evil attributing
responsibility for moral transgression but evil conceived as annihilation, the negation
of existence. But here Connolly has begun to approach the work of others writing in a
post-Nietzschean tradition for whom evil can be translated as a denial or annihilation
of being. This notion still shares with Augustine the sense of a deprivation, not of a
transcendent God but, rather, of a world of infinite possibilities.
Although, on occasion, Connolly disputes the insights of philosophers such as
Heidegger—for whom being is conceived as a fundamental ‘openness’, the ‘dwelling’
in a meaningful ‘world’ (see Heidegger, 1993: 252)—his own efforts to describe evil
as the collapse of ‘your world’ nevertheless parallel some of the latter’s concerns. In
his ‘Letter on Humanism’, for instance, where Heidegger rejects the reduction of
Being (now capitalised) to the qualities of specific beings—refusing the association
of his philosophy with ‘humanism’—he refers in passing to evil as a capacity for
‘nihiliation’, a negating power proper to Being as such. Distinguishing evil from the
‘mere baseness of human action’, Heidegger describes it instead as the ‘malice of
rage’ or as ‘the compulsion to malignancy’ that is one of the essential possibilities
available to human existence (Heidegger, 1993: 260, 261) and not a perversion of
some fixed ontological structure.
The ‘openness to Being’ by which Heidegger characterises existence is
simultaneously a propensity to enact a closure, to fend off or forget the terrifying
‘abyssal’ ground that appears when we bring ourselves to question Being. In his
Introduction to Metaphysics, Heidegger refers to the ‘demonic’ and ‘destructively
evil’ character of modern America and Russia where metaphysical cultures had
‘disempowered’ the spirit that opens up to Being (Heidegger, 2000: 47-9). Let us set
aside, if we may, the reactionary conservatism that informs Heidegger’s text (and
which led him, momentarily, to utterly misperceive the malicious rage of Nazism).
Evil, he suggests in both instances, denotes a particularly virulent, destructive form of
closure to the possibilities of Being, a ‘darkening of the world’. In a similar vein, as
part of his elaboration of freedom as a constitutive dimension of human existence, the
French Heideggerian, Jean-Luc Nancy, argues that ‘the possibility of evil … is
correlative to the introduction of freedom’. Here, freedom is not a civil right or a
subjective choice but an ineliminable precondition of any existence:
This means that freedom cannot present itself without presenting the
possibility, inscribed in its essence, of a free renunciation of freedom. This
very renunciation makes itself known as wickedness …. [I]nscribing freedom
in being amounts to raising to the level of ontology the positive possibility—
and not through deficiency—of evil as much as of good … (Nancy, 1993: 1617. Italics in original).
Where Connolly talks of the properties of ‘faith’ and a tendency to evil in the form of
revenge, and Heidegger refers to ‘Being’ and to evil as nihilation and the ‘malice of
rage’, Nancy refers to the ‘free renunciation of freedom’ as the very possibility of
freedom itself. Evil, wickedness, rage, malice: these are the marks not of a ‘deformed
liberty’ that perverts an original purity, as in Augustine, but a possibility for traumatic
closure that haunts all beings by virtue of their ontological freedom, a capacity to shut
out the light in the aperture to the world that we are as beings. Acts of evil, in this
sense, so often reduce us to mere bodies, to organisms at the limits of sheer survival,
unable to project ourselves towards a world of open possibilities. Connolly’s
intimation of a non-theological conception of evil, already pre-figured in Why I am
Not a Secularist, follows a similar line of reasoning. Evil serves to denote the negation
of the possibilities for being rather than moral corruption: it is the urge to renounce
the freedom to be otherwise than we are that, perhaps inevitably, human beings
experience in their conflicts with others, and that seals off plurality and the generosity
towards difference that a pluralistic culture should cultivate.
It is in light of this propensity for nihilistic ‘evil within faith’ that Connolly
underscores the need for different ‘existential faiths’ to stave off the worst excesses of
metaphysical closure if pluralism is to thrive. Thus he calls for a ‘double-entry
orientation’ of faiths to themselves, calling to anyone with belief to ‘honor the terms
of your faith, while acknowledging its contestability in the eyes of others’ (Connolly,
2005b: 143). This eloquent message, delivered in the first-person address common to
religious discourse, makes a direct appeal to subjects of faith for whom belief is a
matter of deep personal commitment. As an ethical demand for generosity, however,
it amounts, effectively, to an injunction to ‘think twice’ before insisting on the
automatic primacy of one’s own moral standards. Such a demand is hardly
unreasonable but does it concede too much to those who might virulently oppose a
radical pluralism such as to render impossible a wider culture of generosity? Is
Connolly not inviting participants in western democracies to adopt an unlikely
‘holding pattern’ on the basis of an optimistic hope that we might eventually get used
to avoiding the violent clashes of faith? Is this not perhaps more likely to stimulate a
retrenchment of difference into a condition of bare, snarling tolerance as opposed to
an ethos of active engagement?
Perhaps the problem here is that Connolly is addressing subjects primarily as bearers
of faith, that is, as participants in an interiorised narrative of the ‘soul’ with its
distinctive dramas and commitments. His aim, of course, is to explore the unevenness
of that interiority, yet this only partially disrupts the Platonic harmonisation of the
soul and the city that Augustine and other monotheistic arguments seek. A pluralistic
ethos is sought but still in direct conversation with the soul as if this were the
privileged site of ethical generosity. But, as Stuart Hampshire argued in his Justice as
Conflict (1999), rather than reasoning from the interiority of the soul—with its
tendency to ‘pure’ and ‘universal’ principles—we ought to recognise, too, the impact
of public practices and procedures of conflict and argumentation in shaping our
ethical dispositions towards eachother. Our internal life, he suggests, is as much (if
not more) a product of public habits and customs as it is of its own, deeper
deliberations and questions. To the Platonic image of harmony Hampshire proffers the
‘Heraclitean picture’:
[E]very soul is always the scene of conflicting tendencies and divided aims
and ambivalences, and correspondingly, our political enmities in the city or
the state will never come to an end while we have diverse life stories and
diverse imaginations (Hampshire, 1999: 19).
Connolly would surely agree with the Heraclitean picture of the soul. But for
Hampshire, expanding that logic in a liberal society demands we direct ourselves to
the institutionalisation of adversarial procedures so as to normalise conflict between
rival points of view (see Hampshire, 1999: 40-51). Such an orientation (moving from
an emphasis on the divided soul’s deliberation with itself to an emphasis on the
divided city’s public deliberations) demands what Hampshire calls a ‘moral
conversion’ (1999: 40) that reframes how we conceptualise virtue and justice. It
requires us to address citizens not simply as subjects of faith but, rather, as subjects of
political disputation and contest. A pluralist ethos, then, might better be conceived as
the result not of subjects thinking twice so much as of institutions and practices that
expose them to alternative and competing points of view. For this to come about,
however, we need to do more than merely stay the propensity for evil. We need a
narrative that motivates us to engage others as adversaries; one which transforms the
tendency to nihilate others into a common aversion to our own silencing.
Beyond Evil
Certainly there are available alternative accounts of how to cultivate radical pluralism
which argue a stronger line on the cultivation of a common political culture, rather
than an ethos of engagement. The Italian philosopher, Gianni Vattimo, for instance,
has argued in favour of a ‘post-modern’ outlook on emancipation by developing the
theme of nihilism (see Vattimo, 2004). For him, nihilism is not simply a ‘destructive’
condition of negation but implies a wider situation concerning the end of modernity in
the West. Drawing upon Nietzsche and Heidegger, Vattimo understands nihilism as a
loss of transcendent authority—‘the dissolution of any ultimate foundation’ (Vattimo,
2004: xxv)—that leads to the generalisation of a ‘hermeneutic’ imperative: there is no
single Truth, only interpretations (see Vattimo, 1997). The loss of authority for
Reason, Science and Religion—the central feature of modern culture, he argues—
constitutes, in his view, a pervasive experience of nihilism, for which metaphysical
constructs are revealed as merely transient creations. For him, this is the very
precondition for an emancipatory politics.
Whilst Vattimo is likely to concur with Connolly that pluralism demands a generosity
and dialogue among faiths—and, perhaps paradoxically, Vattimo remains a
committed Christian, albeit of a post-modern sort—the logic of his argument is to
insist on the shared, if uneven, sense of this loss of foundation as a common nihilistic
sensibility. In this respect, a generous pluralism can be cultivated, not simply as a
withdrawal from the hard-line metaphysical certainties inspired by our faiths, but by
an awareness of the ‘overcoming’ of metaphysics in which we are all (at least in the
West) implicated. That is to say, pluralism is intrinsically bound up with a common
narrative describing the loss of a transcendent authority to all our judgements.
Interestingly, Vattimo regards that narrative as inspired by a distinctively JudeoChristian message concerning the human source of all things Divine. Christianity, for
Vattimo at least, directly prefigures a post-metaphysical culture in which dialogue,
generosity and forbearance are themselves cardinal virtues (see Vattimo, 2002;
Vattimo and Rorty, 2005).
Vattimo’s effort to narrativise nihilism, as the story of our age, is given a different
twist in the work of Laclau and Mouffe. In their work, both separately and together,
radical pluralism is also conceived in relation to a central narrative, to which they
refer with the term ‘hegemony’ (see Laclau and Mouffe, 1985). If Vattimo identifies
emancipation, generally-speaking, with the decline of universal foundations
conceived as kind of cultural condition, Laclau and Mouffe develop a more strategic
account in which pluralism depends upon a hegemonic culture that assembles a
common set of values over which we conflict. It is this sense of antagonism that acts
as a negative centre (see Laclau, 1996) to a plurality of struggles, unifying them into a
precarious but universalising order. Here, then, nihilism is figured as a series of
mutual enemies (for instance inequality, injustice, racism, and so forth) which are
strategically conjoined.
It is this centrality of a hegemonic narrative to a pluralist project that characterises
Chantal Mouffe’s ‘agonistic’ democratic theory, which parallels much of Hampshire’s
concerns (see Mouffe, 1993; 2000). In her account, a radical democratic space is
constituted, like all political space, through the political division between antagonists
of varying degrees of intensity. In disputing the necessity of ‘rational consensus’ as
the basis of a democratic community, Mouffe underlines the importance of a
framework of contested values over which different groups take up adversarial
positions. This agonistic framework can only ever be a temporary consensus, a
hegemonic construction that assembles opponents around a shared agenda. The
precondition for a democratic pluralism, then, is less an ethical disposition of
generosity towards different systems of belief than a capacity to stage conflicts in a
way that we can successfully distinguish adversaries from antagonists, disputants
from outright enemies.
Although they share many of the presuppositions as Connolly—not least a rejection of
the aspiration to a rational consensus and the longing for philosophical foundations,
plus an awareness of the multiple character of subjectivity—Vattimo and
Laclau/Mouffe develop their own approaches to radical pluralism by reconfiguring
the negative experience of nihilism via ‘strong’ narratives designed to pull difference
into closer alignment than does Connolly’s pluralist ethos. In very different ways, the
potential for evil is therefore transformed into a more integrative outlook which
demands institutions and practices of mutual questioning and deliberation over
contrasting points of view. For Vattimo, this comes in a shared experience of the loss
of foundations that places social differences in, at least minimally, a ‘cultural’
proximity such that different interpretations come into a common conversation. For
Laclau and Mouffe, it is the pull of antagonism that brings adversaries into a shared,
but contested, political space where differences are open to rearticulation. For each,
however, it is necessary, in order to avoid the worst excesses of nihilistic behaviour,
to reconfigure their negativity into a positive, unifying narrative rather than neutralise
nihilistic impulses through a shared ethos.
Where Connolly directs his attention to an ethos that speaks to but does not seek
radically to dislocate subjects of faith, instead teasing them out from their bunkers,
Laclau/Mouffe and Vattimo take a more robust approach, defining more explicitly the
terms of pluralist engagement among subjects of a post-metaphysical culture
(Vattimo) or a radical and plural democratic politics (Laclau/Mouffe). Put another
way, Connolly defends pluralism by warding off evil spirits, guarding difference
through an injunction to ‘think twice’. Laclau, Mouffe and Vattimo, on the other
hand, defend pluralism by transfiguring the potential for evil itself into a kind of good.
Of course, the cost of accentuating the negative in these strong narratives is,
inevitably, the placing of limits on pluralism. If a pluralist democratic culture is bound
up with a unifying narrative that transforms the negativity of nihilism into the
positivity of common spaces of engagement, then that plurality is nevertheless
restricted to the (hegemonic, post-metaphysical) terms of those spaces. Less interested
in exploring the ‘paradoxes’ of difference outside such space, Vattimo and Mouffe are
consequently less ‘generous’ to potential opponents of pluralism than is Connolly:
Mouffe explicitly repudiates efforts at ‘ethical’ approaches to politics that, in her
view, ‘do not emphasize enough the need to put some limits to pluralism’ (Mouffe,
2000: 134) and, in turn, she underlines the potentially ‘dis-associative’ and openly
hostile character of political subjects. Vattimo, on the other hand, is less pessimistic
about ethical engagements, but even he suggests we ‘translate our ethical precepts …
into the language of the overcoming of metaphysics as oblivion of Being’, with the
idea of ‘sin’ being recast as the ‘fall into metaphysics’ (Vattimo, 2004: 69, 68). For
those who refuse to renounce their own metaphysical certainties, Mouffe’s and
Vattimo’s narratives are likely to be seen more as a provocation to adversarial conflict
than a polite invitation to a dialogue that respects the integrity of faith.
In appropriating a non-theological concept of evil, Connolly has sought carefully to
side-step the type of divisive ‘command morality’ that President Bush invoked with
his designation of an ‘axis of evil’, whilst acknowledging the terrible damage that
extremist violence (of any kind) can cause. In this, his post-secular style of reasoning
has proved a unique and productive resource, permitting him to explore the tragic
psychic dramas that motivate such violence, as well as the ressentiment it stimulates
among its victims. To address both constituencies without automatically pitting the
one against the other in some faux civilisational ‘clash’ is an impressive feat for
which Connolly justly deserves praise. The destructive nihilism he invokes with his
use of ‘evil’ is undoubtedly a possibility even (especially?) for the most righteous
among us, and doubtless a pluralist culture would do well to develop antennae
sensitive to its signals.
But it remains questionable how much a commitment to a radical pluralism requires
the danger of destructive nihilism to be transposed into a common narrative of
concern, one that defines in strong terms specific values of public engagement and
which supports a more adversarial politics. As I have suggested above, in all
likelihood such a narrative will set limits to the ethos of generosity among contrasting
faiths that Connolly invites us to explore outside of any ‘strong’ assemblage of values.
The price of successfully expounding a pluralist faith, then, may well be the
redrawing of the axis of evil rather than its total erasure.
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